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Nazi Heels on the Ropes

Can the freewheeling, independent pro-wrestling circuit drop the Nazi gimmicks and become more socially responsible without losing its gonzo charm?

Kenny Herzog
January 03, 2019
Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images
'All Star Superslam Wrestling' in Rhyl, north Wales, on Aug. 15, 2017 Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images
Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images
'All Star Superslam Wrestling' in Rhyl, north Wales, on Aug. 15, 2017 Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

On a Saturday night last June, a small group of wrestling fans gathered inside the Q-Mart Arena in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, for a night of independent wrestling staged by venerable area promotion, World Wide Wrestling Alliance. For just $13, kids and grown-ups alike could sit ringside as local sports-entertainment hopefuls stormed the ring and grappled between the ropes. Notably, the crowd that night contained a group of prepubescent fans holding signs scribbled in a mix of German and English who became particularly animated at the sight of a competitor dubbed ‘Blitzkrieg the German Juggernaut.’

Blitzkrieg, sporting shades and a militaristic crew cut, came out waving a flag bearing the Iron Cross, a symbol associated with German military iconography dating back to the 19th-century Prussian army and, in contemporary usage, with white supremacy. As Blitzkrieg marched to the ring, his arm slashed up and outward at the unmistakable angle of an SS salute and he shouted the Nazi victory salute “Sieg Heil!” to a mix of boos and enthusiastic cheers. All the while, those aforementioned kids steadfastly hoisted their crudely written banners, seemingly oblivious to the historical context of their favorite bad guy’s shtick.

But the perverseness wasn’t lost on Blitzkrieg. After all, some of them were his students. For nine months out of the year, this towering Western European bruiser is better known as Kevin Bean, a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher at Spring-Ford Intermediate School in Royserford, Pennsylvania, about 32 miles northwest of Philadelphia.

Going by user-generated review site, Bean—who’s been employed by the Spring-Ford Area School District since 2004—is generally beloved for being “caring,” “inspirational” and “an expert in physical comedy.” Although on Aug. 23, one antagonistic poster satirized that Bean “was okay except he wore a white hood to class, told us the holocaust [sic] never happened and we had to do sieg hails [sic] instead of the pledge of allegiance [sic].” That was four days before the start of school, and three days after the district’s Board of Directors determined there was no grounds on which to formally discipline Bean after video of his June performance had nearly gone viral.

(A district spokesperson would not comment on the matter, referring only to a superintendent’s letter sent to parents in early August. Bean, meanwhile, did not respond to direct requests for comment but has returned to the classroom, reportedly retired the Blitzkrieg character, and taken a break from wrestling.)

Since that time, Jewish Americans have been jolted by a series of high-profile hate crimes and more subtle threats to their way of life. In October, a crazed gunman stormed the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, screaming, “All Jews must die!” before murdering 11 mostly elderly and/or disabled congregants. That same month, a father in Kentucky proudly posted a photo to social media of he and his young son outfitted as a Nazi soldier and Adolf Hitler, respectively, for Halloween. (Characteristic of such incidents, dad seemed to view the personas as public domain for history buffs.) Days later, a Brooklyn man was arrested on suspicion of vandalizing and setting fires to area synagogues and Yeshivas. (“Die Jew rats” was among the graffiti.) Later that same month, a group of high school juniors in Wisconsin went unpunished after snapping a photo in which they appeared to be saluting in the very same suggestive manner that Bean co-opted as Blitzkrieg. (“We even got the black kid to throw it up,” boasted one since-deleted Tweet of the photo shortly after it was snapped.) But before Bean even stepped into the ring, the rise in anti-Semitic attitudes and related hate crimes was already well documented.

No one would draw a through line between Bean’s transgression and this rash of unfortunate incidents. But neither is his misstep an isolated case of a moonlighting wrestler misapprehending its tradition of outsized villains and stereotypical characters. And like any other sport or entertainment (and especially sports entertainment), particularly in this watchful digital age, independent wrestling might be forced to tackle its own problematic relationship with portrayals and perceptions of Jews. Failure to do so, no different than examining any other area of cultural insensitivity, only contributes in its own small way to systemic indifference.

A Matter of Society

Industry titan World Wrestling Entertainment was once the pace-setter when it came to profiting from wrongheadedness. (This What Culture gallery of WWE’s most galling gimmicks elucidates how downright cruel they could be in depicting characters of African, African-American, Latino and Pacific Islander origins.) But since becoming a publicly traded entity in 1999, the company’s become much more attuned to political sensitivities and eventually pivoted to a less polarizing, PG-oriented stance spotlighting atypical heroes like subversive firebrand CM Punk and vegan crusader Daniel Bryan (both of whom honed their craft for years on the indie circuit). Scrappier upstart promotions have, in that time, evolved as well, as in the case of New Japan Pro Wrestling standout and stateside indie regular Zack Sabre Jr., who contrasts a villainous onscreen role with frequent social-media support for groups like the Humane Society.

Yet, at its grassroots, vestiges of wrestling’s complicated history as both renegade and recklessly stereotypical remain. Just ask London-based indie wrestler David Starr (real name: Max Barsky), who is Jewish and happens to have been raised in Abington, Pennsylvania, a relative stone’s throw from Royserford. As you may have guessed by his stage name (and complementary design of his attire and merchandise), Starr doesn’t shy away from integrating his heritage into his character, a choice that hasn’t come without consequences.

Over a period of about a year between 2015 and 2016, a small minority of heckling fans in the Philadelphia and Western New Jersey regions would seemingly shadow him at gigs for well-established hardcore promotion Combat Zone Wrestling. (CZW is most notorious for semi-occasional death matches of the sort actor and wrestling nut David Arquette recently took part in). This contingent taunted Starr with anti-Semitic remarks, going so far as to throw change at him. It’s an experience Starr detailed on his YouTube channel and that has been parsed on platforms like Reddit among fans straining to disassociate a fringe element from what most observers, including Starr, agree is an increasingly progressive-minded community.

But some of that ignorance and line-pushing is in independent wrestling’s DNA. It’s effectively a residue of the freewheeling culture developed by a patchwork, barnstorming coalition of territorial promotions throughout the mid-to-late 20th century (and, later and on a larger scale, WWE and, to a slightly lesser degree, Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling). “Because our sport has educated fans to be that way for so long, the fans feel like that’s part of it,” Starr says via Skype from London of a certain resolute un-PC-ness. “But it’s up to society to police that sort of thing. The fans and wrestling community as a whole have been doing way better, but there is still this divide.”

Colt Cabana, a former WWE performer presently working with top-tier independent company Ring of Honor, is this generation’s most universally recognized Jewish wrestler. “In independent wrestling, especially independent wrestling, we still learn from the model of the ‘80s and ‘90s,” Cabana affirms in a phone interview while discussing indies’ often cavalier approach to staying in business. “Those characters are still alive and well on our scene.”

He also concedes that having become so established, he’s long been insulated from open, anti-Semitic hostility and can usually avoid being booked on bills with performers like Mathias Glass, who masquerades around in both wardrobe and affectation as a cartoonish exaggeration of an ultra-Orthodox Jew. (Glass, whom Starr has very publicly pilloried, on multiple occasions, did not respond to requests for comment.)

Starr seems headed toward Cabana’s level of success, but he still struggles with what transpired two years ago, recalling, “When I got the change thrown at me and made an issue of it, there was a huge divide, and there is a silent minority that doesn’t want to speak up because they know they’ll be ridiculed for their thoughts. But there’s obviously people out there accepting of hate speech and these kinds of things.”

Not everyone takes Starr’s community-policing point of view. DJ Hyde, CZW’s head booker and the very person who put Starr on those hotly debated bills in Philly and Jersey, insists that when made aware of audience conduct like Starr endured, action is swiftly taken to warn or remove the offenders. But as a businessman, he’s also ultimately more comfortable taking cues from the world beyond his squared circle than aiming to impact it from the inside out. “It’s a matter of society,” Hyde says matter-of-factly. “And wrestling revolves around society. It’s all about what society accepts.”

That argument can be hard to swallow when it comes to notorious death-match fighter Shlak (aka Martin Jason Schacteer), who’s been widely accused — and far as some are concerned, outed — as a friend/associate of New Jersey-based neo-Nazi outfit Atlantic City Skinheads, or ACS. Images of Shlak surfaced in 2017 that appear to show him hanging out on numerous occasions with alleged ACS members and at one point making light of the Nazi salute. Some deeper digging reveals that Shlak’s former hardcore band, Call the Parademics (which featured songs like “It’s Not Rape, It’s Surprise Sex”), has, likewise, faced accusations that at least one of its members was a known ACS recruit.

Raising the Lowest-Common-Denominator

After issuing a statement decrying both neo-Nazis and Antifa radicals (an echo of the Trumpian “very fine people on both sides” formulation), and despite losing some bookings, Shlak still competes for CZW and several other promotions. Reached by phone for this story, and pushed about his aforementioned statement hedging on a straightforward rebuke of antisemitism and white supremacy, he says, “I get that, adding, “I have a warped sense of humor like Mel Brooks,” referencing perhaps filmdom’s most venerated Jewish comedic voice. (Both he and Hyde are also eager to note that Shlak currently dates Jewish female wrestler Maria Manic, aka Maria Spiro.)

“I understand people see this old-ass picture and it makes them feel a certain way about me, and I know in the opinion of some people I’ve done a shitty job of clarifying my feelings about this topic,” Shlak says. “I’m a stubborn hardcore wrestler from the inner-city, and sometimes I don’t handle adversity the way I should. I’m sorry that I haven’t been more clear. I hung around stupid people a long time ago without thinking about how it would affect me or other people down the road. For the record, I am not a Nazi, I do not support Nazi shit, I’ve never been one and I will never be one. White supremacy is bullshit, along with every other supremacy.”

Whatever your feelings on Shlak, the controversy around him—and wrestlers who seem to have explicitly incorporated elements of racist symbolism into their personas—poses a conundrum for promoters. Should the wild world of indie wrestling develop more formal protocol for screening and background checks—even if it’s just to avoid the headache of future PR crises? Or do measures like that run antithetical to its entrepreneurial spirit, part and parcel with a belief that asking fans and performers to be more sensitive to stereotypes waters down the product’s interactive and creative appeal? Or as Shlak puts it, “Isn’t wrestling based on friction?”

Starr, who has worked with Shlak and walks a fine line of criticizing how he’s handled certain situations while stopping short of saying he’s witnessed him being bigoted or anti-Semitic, sees another way. “[It’s] been said we appeal to the lowest-common-denominator,” Starr laments of his profession. “That’s ridiculous. Why? Why don’t we try and bring everyone up instead of scraping the bottom of the barrel? It’s a laziness thing. Just because you’re not trying to be religiously offensive or racially offensive doesn’t mean you can’t be a hard promotion or do interesting storylines.”

The truth is that wrestling, on the whole, is still prone to pigeonholing performers of all backgrounds based on broad and dated stereotypes (take a cursory glance at World Wide Wrestling Alliance’s roster), even in WWE (former U.S. Champion Rusev, though billed as a “Bulgarian brute,” was initially a boilerplate Putin sympathizer).

“How can you trust somebody outside the community to understand and know what we’ve been through?” Starr asks just before lacing up his boots for a last-minute London gig. “Same thing with any minority community. So we have to do it ourselves. If we don’t do it within, it’s not gonna go over.”

Kenny Herzog is a journalist for outlets including Rolling Stone, New York Magazine, and The Ringer. Follow him at @kennyherzog..